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Researchers in B.C. could help save one of the world’s most complex Indigenous languages

Click to play video: 'Project aims to revitalize endangered Indigenous language' Project aims to revitalize endangered Indigenous language
An innovative projects aims to revitalize use and learning of the Kwak'wala language as there are fewer than 200 people left who are fluent speakers. Kylie Stanton reports. – Feb 8, 2022

A British Columbia-based research team is developing a blueprint for revitalizing Indigenous languages that could help recover one of the most complex First Nations languages in the world.

Sara Child and Caroline Running Wolf are working to preserve Kwak’wala, an endangered language spoken on the northeast coast of Vancouver Island and the adjacent mainland coast of the province.

Their team is working with elders to develop a framework for a new teaching method for Kwak’wala, grounded in the unique cultural lens of Kwakwaka’wakw communities. The language, deeply tied to land and health, means it cannot be taught using conventional Western pedagogy alone, Child explained.

“Our languages aren’t just about speaking, our languages are intricately tied to our wellness,” she said in an interview.

“It’s vital to help revitalize our languages because of the amazing and incredibly important knowledge that is carried and encoded in our languages that help us to walk on this Earth in a very respectful and humble way.”

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Most fluent speakers of Kwak’wala are in their seventies and eighties, said Child, a Kwagu’ł band member and Indigenous Education professor at North Island College. Fewer than 200 fluent speakers remain.

According UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, about 75 per cent of Indigenous languages in Canada are endangered.

The project to recover Kwak’wala, led by an all-Indigenous team, began in 2017 with support from Child’s non-profit Sanyakola Foundation, which focuses on Kwak’wala revitalization.

In 2020, it received support from Mitacs, a non-profit funded by the federal and provincial governments that helps solve business challenges through research from academic institutions.

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In addition to working with elders on pedagogy, the team is developing voice-to-text technology for Kwak’wala that could function in a mobile app, with pronunciation in the voice of an elder and the ability to identify everyday objects in photos uploaded by the user, for example.

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Kwak’wala is verb-based and functions very differently from English, meaning a recognition system must be developed from scratch through carefully authenticated Kwak’wala words.

Slowly but surely, Child added, the artificial intelligence is learning the language.

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In addition to voice-to-text software, Mitacs intern Running Wolf said she aims to use virtual or augmented reality programs to help make Indigenous language-learning more accessible.

“Immersive technologies are a great way of immersing yourself into that cultural context while applying the language correctly,” explained the PhD student of Interdisciplinary Graduate Studies at the University of British Columbia.

She said she hopes the model of revitalization being developed out of Port Hardy, B.C. will help provide a blueprint for other Indigenous nations who want to reclaim their own languages.

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A major obstacle, said Running Wolf and Child, has been obtaining sufficient funding for the research.

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“If you look at the amount of money and energy that was spent over centuries in eradicating Indigenous peoples and their language and their culture … the money that is now being offered to support language reclamation efforts is a miniscule drop in the ocean,” said Running Wolf, a citizen of Apsáalooke Nation in Montana.

Mitacs is providing $450,000 for the project over four years, allowing to the team to develop a sustainable, multi-faceted approach to revitalization, she added.

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